And one last note on politics. Please welcome your new Internet overlords, Australia. They are hiding in some parliamentary office somewhere at the moment. Since this is a free e-letter, and since there is a clear connection between political freedom and economic freedom, a story from South Australia caught our attention and demands a comment.
A new law has come into effect in South Australia. The law, according to the Adelaide Advertiser, “requires internet bloggers, and anyone making a comment on next month’s state election, to publish their real name and postcode when commenting on the poll.” It effectively prevents anonymous comments on politics on the Internet.
The law “also requires media organisations to keep a person’s real name and full address on file for six months, and they face fines of $5000 if they do not hand over this information to the Electoral Commissioner.” So there you go.
The law’s proponents – not surprisingly incumbents from both parties – say it will prevent defamatory and libellous comments from sullying a high minded public debate about the poll. But last we heard, laws generally punish transgressions of behaviour rather than trying to prevent the behaviour itself by making it illegal (you get fined for speeding when you speed, not for thinking about it).
The law is obviously going to have a chilling effect on political speech. True, there is an argument to be made that if you want to have a healthy democracy, people ought to put a name on the ideas they espouse and be willing to articulate and defend them openly. But there is a long tradition of anonymous political commentary, and for equally democratic reasons.
For example the writers of the Federalist Papers (which were essays and pamphlets on why the separate States should ratify the U.S. Constitution) wrote under the pseudonym “Publius.” Obviously John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison weren’t afraid of the rough and tumble of public life. So why write under a pen name?
The State, or its agents, can exercise all kinds of retribution on those who challenge it. It could be political. It could be economic. Or it could be using the tax collectors to chase down your favourite political enemies. In the hands of the vindictive or the malicious, the tools of State power can be brought to bear on vocal critics.
That’s also why whistleblowers are protected. But really, it shouldn’t matter why someone chooses to remain private when making a public comment. If their argument is about an idea, then the person making the argument doesn’t matter. It’s not an argument made “from authority,” where the force of the person making it carries the day. It’s an argument about an idea.
The fact that South Australia is stifling political speech ought to be embarrassing for Australians. Of course we say that as an American. As a colleague tut-tutted last night, “You Americans get so wound up about freedom of speech. This is just a sensible law that improves the quality of the political discourse in Australia.”
He’s right about one thing. Freedom of speech is not a protected right anywhere in Australia’s constitution. We read up on the matter here. So you don’t have freedom of speech guaranteed anywhere, but you do have an “implied freedom of political communication.”
The problem with an “implied freedom of political communication” is that it is not a positive right above the tampering of the legislature or judiciary. Statutory protections for free speech can be changed by statute (once you get a bunch of legislators riled up). If, however, freedom of speech were part of an Australian Bill of Rights, it would be constitutionally protected and above the tinkering of morons in all branches of government.
We know from experience that many Aussies oppose a bill of rights because they believe it gives the courts and judges more power to determine what “rights” actually are. But the whole point of a bill of rights is that it’s mostly based on “negative” rights, or those things which the government cannot or must not do to you (in most circumstances).
To the extent that rights are positive in a bill of rights, they are things the government MUST do to protect you, like offer you a trial by jury of your peers, or not hold you in jail for too long without charging you for a crime. To be fair, having a bill of rights doesn’t insure the government won’t violate these rights. But at least you can take it to court and win.
And yes, taking the government to court to protect your rights probably does promote a more litigious society. But so what? That’s not the sort of objection that invalidates the idea of bill of rights. Liberty is worth defending, isn’t it? C’mon Australia. Stand up for yourself!
It’s better to have the rule of law operating to protect speech and to have way to hold the government accountable for its infringements on your liberties than to have your speech shut down by politicians who want to bully their opposition into silence through coercion.
Intellectual coercion is a second cousin of physical coercion. Once you concede the principle that the government can censor what you say…well…you’ve conceded an awful lot. What do we know though? We’re neither a lawyer nor a climatologist. Just a “carpetbagger with a modem,” as one reader wrote. Until tomorrow.
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